16 August 2019

Let them eat cake: the pointless obsession with food ‘reformulation’

By Blythe Edwards

The government’s attempt to manipulate our diets by strong-arming the food industry into “reformulating” their products is illiberal and symptomatic of the broader impulse for nanny state intervention by well-meaning, but patronising, bureaucrats.

In the name of tackling the over-hyped “obesity crisis”, and encouraged by celebrity campaigners like Jamie Oliver, the state, through Public Health England (PHE), has zealously expanded intervention into Britain’s food industry in recent years.

When the ‘calorie reduction programme’ is rolled out this autumn, it will take the total number of PHE targets on salt, sugar, and calorie content to a staggering 299. These heavy-handed guidelines, which include a directive to cut 20% of sugar content from most foods, complement the economic coercion of the ‘sugar tax’ introduced last year.

As a result, many leading fizzy drinks including Sprite, Fanta, Dr Pepper and 7UP, as well as almost all supermarket own-brand drinks – have been forced to redesign their products, substituting artificial sweeteners and thickeners for sugar. This is despite the fact that there are already diet or sugar free versions of their drinks anyway.

Sugar and spice and everything (not) nice

The IEA’s Cooking for Bureaucrats report released today, sheds light on the policy’s underlying flaws – including its blatant disregard for consumer tastes and preferences.

The PHE targets are arbitrary, overly broad, and bluntly applied, failing to account for the complexity of the human diet or the specificities of various food products. Why does dried fruit count towards the sugar content in a cake but not a granola bar?

In effect, food products redesigned under PHE advice may actually become less nutritious. When Greggs shifted to using skimmed milk powder, the protein content of their porridges fell along with the calorie count. Children depend on fatty foods and dairy for brain and bone development and may be worse off consuming low-fat and low-milk food designed for inactive adults.

A pinch of salt

Nutritional needs are not one-size-fits-all. Neither are tastes. Without government interference, the free market caters to vegans, diabetics, paleolithics, coeliacs, and chocoholics. Why should the state squelch that profusion? Even a cursory consideration of past dietary guidelines should warn us of the hubris in assuming we have anywhere close to perfect knowledge.

Nutrition studies regularly contradict each other, and scientists recognise that the inaccuracy of data collected in such studies make their findings difficult to interpret. Countless articles have been written on how the low-fat ideology of government nutritional guidelines from decades past contributed to current obesity levels – and we have another set of guidelines now which seeks to address this. It is worrying to base coercive legislation upon the premise that Big Brother knows best.

State manipulation of markets is not just misguided, it is punitive. Sugar taxes, like many killjoy nanny-state initiatives, are regressive and disproportionately penalise low-income consumers. In an effort to claim sugar reductions, many companies have reduced portion sizes or increased the price of their products, increasing shopping bills and reducing families’ disposable income. Not only will society judge your food choices, but you will be financially punished for them.

Forced reformulation also forces many internationally recognised brands to deliberately redesign their products to taste worse, inviting a negative response from consumers. The reformulation of Ribena, Lucozade, and Irn-Bru all provoked a significant backlash. The recent release of ‘low-sugar Coco Pops’ is another case in point.

Some products, like Sherbet Lemons, Liquorice Allsorts, and Parma Violets cannot be reformulated and could be forced off the shelf under government guidelines. Depressingly, these reformulations will only reduce the number of options on offer for consumers.

Contrary to popular belief, data indicates that British diets are steadily becoming healthier.

Today, Britons consume less sugar per head than we did in 1900. IEA research suggests that it is cheaper to buy healthy and nutritious food than it is to buy processed ‘junk food’ and fibre, fruit and vegetable intake has increased since the 1970s.

When we are already embracing healthier alternatives, PHE policies only serve to reduce the array of options for those who want the occasional full-sugar indulgence.

Good intentions, bad outcomes

Worse still, there is no evidence that food reformulation improves health outcomes. Campaigners fail to factor in their outcome projections the potential for ‘calorie offsetting’ or the tendency to eat more of less filling foods. But this has done little to temper the bureaucrats’ zeal. Indeed, proposals for more extreme nanny state intervention abound, with policymakers from all parties either supportive or silent. In its June report, the IPPR think tank advocated higher taxes on ‘unhealthy’ foods, combined with plain, grey packaging and a daytime TV advertising ban.

But why turn to taxes, regulations, and bans? Arguably fitness apps like FitBit have done more for our health than all of the government regulations. We really don’t need the government to make our choices for us.

Underlying all of this is a fundamental argument about individual freedom. Public Health England’s excessive interventionism raises a question over whether we should be treated as responsible adults or infantile wards, dependent on a benevolent state to protect us from ourselves.

Health activists may sincerely believe that maximising our lifespans should take precedence over indulging our unhealthier habits, but that is ultimately not their choice to make. In a free society, individuals should enjoy responsibility for their own lifestyle decisions.

Assumption of this responsibility by a paternalistic public authority marks a slippery slope with no endpoint in sight. We must not forget that the wider population is only the sum of the individuals within. Some people prefer to live by the old maxim, “don’t be afraid to live hard and fast, because it is not the years in your life, but the life in your years that count.” And some of them live to a ripe old age anyway.

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Blythe Edwards is an intern at the Institute of Economic Affairs